Two films starring Joan Crawford that I had never seen had been calling to me for a while, and I was having trouble deciding which ones to watch for 31 Days to Scare. Ultimately, both were so short and interesting that I decided to bundle them for A Double Shot of Crawford. If Crawford is the true star of Berserk, she was more of a cameo in I Saw What You Did, but both show off her tremendous screen presence.
Synopsis: A scheming circus owner finds her authority challenged when a vicious killer targets the show.
Stars: Joan Crawford, Ty Hardin, Diana Dors, Michael Gough, Judy Geeson, Robert Hardy
Director: Jim O’Connolly
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: After a long and celebrated career of almost 45 years and nearly 80 films, Joan Crawford’s work in the movies was struggling in the late ‘60s. She would find the occasional job here and there, but rumors of her being difficult to work with had proceeded her, often proven true by the actress’s noted drinking problems late in life. Her work with William Castle on 1964’s Strait-Jacket and 1965’s I Saw What You Did bolstered her into the B-movie horror genre after starring in the A-List suspense thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. By the time 1969’s Berserk pulled up, Crawford was done with the American film business and was looking to the European market.
A British film production, Berserk is almost a double-bill film in and of itself. It serves as a fine suspense thriller with Crawford well cast (and well-lit), and it also features several circus acts, bringing horror and spectacle together into one package. Your thoughts on the circus and its use of animals aside, it is fascinating to see the traveling entertainment all these years later to view some of its inner workings and oddities. While the fully performed circus routines tend to pad the feature (full disclosure, I fast-forwarded through many of them after a few minutes), I can see how their presence would add a selling point to those wanting an extended peek into the tent.
At its heart, Berserk is a murder-mystery whodunit and not a bad one at that. Someone starts to trim the roster of performers and staff of Crawford’s traveling circus, and it’s up to the dwindling members to find out who could be behind it all. A shocking opening finds a tightrope walker strangled by his rope, which also cleverly (or would it be cheekily?) reveals the title as shocked spectators look on. Unbothered by this terrible death, ringmistress Monica Rivers (Crawford) asks her business partner Albert Dorando (Michael Gough, Venom) to locate a new act immediately. Lucky for them, Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin), another tightrope walker with an added element of danger, has shown up looking for a job. He fits the bill, is ruggedly handsome, and instantly has eyes for single-mother Monica, so he’s hired. Their affair begins quickly, and soon, he wants to be taken on as part of the business.
When more people start to die, usually any that stand in the way of Monica or Frank getting what they want, the performers team up and begin to put the pieces together that perhaps it’s Monica behind the killings. This scene was a fun turning point of the movie, when the “freaks” get back at their master and, led into battle by the voluptuous Diana Dors; it’s when the film loosens its collar a bit and settles into having some fun with its cattiness. Dors and Crawford have some nice run-ins, and as the bodies pile up, more people arrive on the scene that may be helping or hindering the process. One of these is Detective Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy, Dark Places), sent to help the circus pinpoint its killer in disguise, and Angela Rivers (Judy Geeson, Lords of Salem), Monica’s estranged daughter stops by after getting kicked out of boarding school.
If there’s one place where the movie falters, it’s in a finale that’s a bit ludicrous even by the standard of these trashy-but-fun films. There’s a sense of not knowing how to wrap things up, so writers Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel chose the ending that shocks the most, even if it creates a multi-verse of plot holes. Up until that point, apart from the slightly slow circus acts, the genre pieces of Berserk had been quite fun to get a front-row seat for. For nothing else, it’s lovely to see Crawford looking glamorous and in complete control of the movie. As mentioned before, she’s rarely seen without a particular key light across her face, and it almost becomes comical by the end to have that same light on her no matter where she is or what time of day the scene takes place.
I Saw What You Did (1965)
Synopsis: Teenagers Libby and Kit innocently spend an evening making random prank calls that lead to murderous consequences.
Stars: Joan Crawford, Andi Garrett, Sarah Lane, Sharyl Locke, John Ireland, Leif Erickson, Patricia Breslin, Joyce Meadows
Director: William Castle
Running Length: 82 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In the horror genre, the name William Castle often goes hand in hand with a particular type of schlock B-movie cinema. While he initially began as a standard director of lower-grade films that studios could use to fill out double bills, he eventually turned his talent at marketing a movie with gimmicks and ploys from advanced advertising into a small cottage industry. Often the advanced buzz on a film was more interesting than the film itself. This is the guy that had a “fright break” in his 1961 film Homicidal that allowed guests to run out of the theater if they were too scared to stay for the end. I’ve watched that film, and while it isn’t particularly frightening, the 60-second countdown in the “fright-break” as a woman slowly walks toward a door to open creates a nerve frenzy that’s had to ignore.
By the time I Saw What You Did came about in 1965, Castle had also released 1959’s The Tingler, with vibrating devices installed in seats to give audiences a buzz whenever the titular creature had shown up. His idea around I Saw What You Did was to have seat belts installed in seats to prevent the viewer from leaping out due to fright. Maybe not on par with his previous stunts, but it still comes across as if you might want to proceed with caution if you consider buying a ticket. I find all these quite fun, but you can also understand why these campaigns went by the wayside. Not only were they hard to maintain as movie theaters across the country grew, but it also indicated the film needed a trick to entice audiences when the movie itself should be the draw.
At least with Castle, most of his films were easy to recommend. I’m always surprised at how nicely put together his movies are, and I Saw What You Did is no exception. Opening with such a spring in its step that you may wonder if you’ve started into a teeny-bopper comedy, we get introduced to Libby Mannering (Andi Garrett) and Kit Austin (Sara Lane). They plan a night in at Libby’s house while her parents are away overnight. They’ll be a babysitter because Libby’s younger sister Tess (Sharyl Locke) has been ill, so Kit’s dad agrees that she can hang out at Libby’s isolated home on the outskirts of town.
When Kit arrives, and her dad has gone, the babysitter cancels, leaving Libby’s parents to make a last-minute decision to allow their teen daughter to have some adult responsibility. Libby can be in charge if they stay in the house and don’t go out. No sooner have they left than the teens, bored after Libby shows Kit around their expansive home and outdoor barn, start playing a fun telephone game. They flip through a phone book, pick a random name, and call the number, pranking whoever answers with silly questions or their favorite line: “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” A call to Steve Marak (John Ireland) will turn their crank calling into a nightmare.
They first get Marak’s wife on the phone, and with the girls posing as a sultry woman, she confronts her husband, who is already in an aggravated state. Things get dicey from there, with Marak killing his wife and burying her body, only to receive another call from the giggly girls saying: “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” Convinced there is a witness to his crime through a series of coincidences that involve Marak’s lusty neighbor (Joan Crawford), Marak identifies the address where the girls are calling from and makes a late-night beeline to them.
I went into I Saw What You Did, thinking it would be much different than it turned out. Maintaining a natural feeling of pep and capturing that teen spirit in the first half, the transition makes sense when it turns dark in the second, and we start to fear for the girl’s safety. There’s a lot of teen slang that makes for fun laughs, and Crawford is a campy treat as the nosy neighbor who can’t see she’s making eyes at a dangerous killer.
The film’s finale is quite scary, with Castle adding ample amounts of fog to his studio set and creating a sense of dread by doing very little. Films of this era often drew suspense from the editing, and Edwin H. Bryant cuts I Saw What You Did with efficient skill. It’s a full 82-minutes that rarely sags because of the performances (the two teens are terrific, as is the youngster playing the ill sister) and Castle’s eye for crafting visuals that give you the shivers is on target. That’s the kind of filmmaking that needs no trickery to promote.